In the Spirit of Mayhew

Frank Kermode

  • Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
    Faber, 487 pp, £16.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 571 19427 3

The Indian novel in English goes back a long way, at least to R.K. Narayan, who flourished from the Thirties to the Eighties of the last century. The achievements of Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and others now at work suggest that it still flourishes despite the opposition view that modern Indians should not write in English. India has a great many languages and English can be thought of as just one more of them, but that argument won’t wholly suffice, for the loyalty of these writers is not merely linguistic. Their allegiance is to the English novel of the 19th-century tradition, and their work has little in common with deviant strains, whether of Modernism or Postmodern magic realism, or of such mid-20th-century experimental styles as the nouveau roman. Indeed they testify to the power, or if you prefer, the inertia, of that great central tradition.

Rohinton Mistry has an affinity with Dickens, and some say with Stendhal, but the English novelist he most resembles seems to be Arnold Bennett. Bennett was a novelist of great skill and resource, well aware of the new techniques, new styles of ‘treatment’, currently being explored by Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, and aware also of the new rules of the game as promulgated by Henry James with his passion for ‘doing’. Bennett greatly admired Conrad, but decided against this kind of ‘doing’. The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) was almost contemporary with Nostromo, which he called ‘the finest novel of this generation’; but his own novel, though expertly crafted, is always mindful of the ordinary reader – the one E.M. Forster called ‘Uncle Harry’ – and is resolutely unbaffling. The relatively late Riceyman Steps (1923) showed that he could do doing pretty well if he chose; but he wrote bestsellers and Conrad did not.

It once seemed that there was to be a major technological revolution in the art of the novel, but it didn’t happen; even Joyce didn’t cause one. Prejudice against extreme forms of doing has persisted, and these talented Indians have acceded to it. This may be why, with the help of a certain post-Imperial nostalgia, they are so much admired in Britain. The first nine Booker Prize winners included four novels by Indian novelists, or novels about India, or, failing India, other parts of the old Empire. Of the thirty or so winners of the prize to date, fewer than half are native English. And even they tend to prefer solidity to fireworks.

‘Solid’ is a description that comes to mind (but it turns out to need qualification) when one is reading Rohinton Mistry. The three novels he has so far published are all long and unhurried. They contain a large number of characters, all kitted out with characteristics, attitudes, foibles and families to quarrel with. They are domestic persons with private causes for pain or anxiety but they are also subjected to the savage wear and tear of Indian weather and politics, and in general to the violence of fate. The novels contain many accidents – the action of Family Matters has its origin in one. The other books contain unfortunates who, mostly as a result of traffic accidents, are, as Mistry puts it, ‘in pitiful pursuit of ambulation’; or who fall off buildings, are crushed by the collapse of their own roofs, beaten up by the police or, when unwillingly undergoing vasectomy as required by Mrs Gandhi, carelessly or viciously castrated. Considering their ill luck their calm is remarkable.

Families are firmly at the centre of the action. In the first book, Such a Long Journey, the family is Parsi, and so it is again in this new novel. Any of Mistry’s readers who, like me, come to the books with no clear and distinct idea about what it means to be a Parsi will at least learn the elements. The religion is Zoroastrianism, brought from Iran in the eighth century by people in flight from the conquering Muslims. It has lasted well, but in India’s population of a billion or so, Parsis amount to no more than a few thousand. They have had a generally respected place in society; and have been especially admired for their equable manners and reliability. For a long time banks preferred them as employees. They admire Western music and seem particularly attached to the violin (the Beethoven Violin Concerto is singled out for praise), an instrument that crops up with better than statistical frequency in these novels. Mistry’s Parsi characters are well aware of their minority status but continue to regard their way of life as valuable. They habitually lament the decline in their numbers and are, perhaps understandably, keen that their children should not marry out, though Nariman Vakeel, the old man at the centre of Family Matters, is haunted on his deathbed by the misery of his enforced marriage.

The character of their religion is best explained when Yezad, Nariman’s son-in-law, begins to take it seriously. A peaceable, honest man, oppressed by the worsening conditions of his life, he becomes more and more absorbed in religion and observant of ritual detail. Parsi men wear a belt called a kusti (italicised in the first book, later in roman, henceforth treated as an English loan word). Taken off after prayer according to a precise set of rules, it becomes, symbolically, a weapon against evil. (There is mention of the ‘trusty kusti’, which may be a joke or an accident; in the first novel there occur expressions of the sort Mistry has later eliminated. No longer do contrasts have to be stark, and it is possible to be mistaken without being sadly so.)

The most spectacular Parsi rite is the disposal of the dead. The bodies are placed at the top of a Tower of Silence, where they are devoured by vultures. Mistry loses few opportunities for detailed description – which is one reason his books are so long, or, better, have such solidity of specification – and he gives a particularly vivid account of a funeral. Once the body was deposited on the platform of the tower,

the mourners could see no more. But they knew what would happen inside; the nassalers would place the body on a pavi, on the outermost of three concentric stone circles. Then, without touching Dinshawji’s flesh, using their special hooked rods they would tear off the white cloth. Every stitch, till he was exposed to the creatures of the air, naked as the day he had entered the world.

Overhead the vultures were circling, flying lower and lower with each perfect circle they casually described. Now they started to alight on the stone wall of the Tower, and in the tall trees around it . . .

At the Tower, the chief nassaler clapped three times; the signal to start the prayer for Dinshawji’s ascending soul.

While they prayed, the vultures descended in great numbers, so graceful in flight but transforming into black hunched forms upon perching, grim and silent. The high stone wall was lined with them now, their serpent-like necks and bald heads rising incongruously from their plumage.

(You have to guess the meaning of the italicised words.)

Now a frequent visitor to the Temple, Yezad becomes what his younger son calls ‘a non-stop praying stranger’. Growing more and more intolerant, he bullies his stubbornly secular elder son, so adding to the other pressures that are tending to destroy the harmony of his household. He divides his living-room and insists that part of it can be entered only by persons ritually pure; even his wife cannot go into it when menstruating, at which time she is exiled from the family and fed by a maid, who of course is herself kept out of range when in her periodic bouts of impurity. The wife involves herself in other kinds of superstition and consults a woman who knows what you must do to transfer your ill-fortune to another. Even Yezad, no gambler but pressed for cash, consults a woman who dreams the winning numbers in an illegal numbers game.

All this may sound pretty exotic; yet the men in the stories have an English-style education: they quote Shakespeare and Coleridge, Joyce and Yeats. A couple of actors hired to scare Yezad’s boss (with honourable but foolish motives) give it as their opinion that this boss, Mr Kapur, ‘needs to experience an epiphany. So we must convey more than just present danger to him and his shop. We must transcend the here and now, move beyond this bank and shoal of time, and let him glimpse the horrors of a society where the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ This is a joke, but it wouldn’t work if elements of this kind of talk weren’t present in the conversation of the community. Literature even has a hold on Yezad’s children, who adore Enid Blyton and Biggles.

Parsis, it seems, have a keen interest in cricket, an English game now more important in India than in its native land. To the annoyance of less ecumenical neighbours, some Parsis, including Yezad’s boss, who actually dresses up as Santa Claus, are happy to observe Christmas (which has a part in the plot of this latest book) and even Valentine’s Day. The complicated coexistence or clash between English and Indian is signified by simultaneous loudspeaker broadcasts, one giving the news in Hindi, the other the BBC World Service. Mistry refrains from glossing un-English words as they occur in dialogue or narrative, and occasionally leaves whole sentences in languages few Western readers understand. Others are part Hindi or Gujarati and part English.

Nariman is a 79-year-old retired professor, alert and patient but far gone in Parkinsonism. Defying the advice of his hectoring stepdaughter, he insists on going out for a walk in the dangerous streets, falls and breaks an ankle. He already has trouble dealing with the detail of ordinary life: ‘the way they packaged shirts for sale with impregnable plastic wrappers, pins stuck in all the trickiest places, cardboard inserts jammed hard under the collar.’ The broken-down streets of Bombay prove too much for him, and henceforth he will be bedridden.

A helpless invalid in a small flat, he unwillingly makes life a misery for his hosts. They live with the urine bottle and, when an attempt to replace it with a commode disastrously fails, the bedpan. We’re not spared the perpetual smell, the awkwardness of eating. It is arranged that the old man should divide his time, in the manner of King Lear, between stepdaughter and daughter, between the apartment he starts in and that of his daughter, Roxana, and her husband; but he gets stuck with Roxana, because his stepdaughter, Coomy, is so keen not to have him back that she makes her place unfit by damaging the ceiling. Meanwhile the old man dreams of the non-Parsi woman he loved but could not marry, and Roxana’s family grows more and more miserable. The apartment, once pleasant, is now disagreeable, and there is a shortage of money for the old man’s medicines (Coomy seems to be pocketing the pension).

The deterioration of everybody under the threat of poverty, including the children – Yezad gambles, one of the boys blackmails fellow pupils – and the steady draining of the modest happiness these perfectly good people had enjoyed, is matched by the increasing impossibility of finding any peace in grossly overcrowded, polluted, corrupt Bombay: ‘fourteen million people’, thinks Yezad, ‘half of them living in slums, eating and shitting in places not fit for animals’. All around is noise and poverty. Men scratch a living from such trades as letter-writing, bone-setting, hair-collecting and earwax-removing, all chronicled quite in the spirit of Mayhew. ‘Let’s all have some piss and quiet,’ says a minor character who is conscientiously identified by his inability to sort out English vowels. In this city you have too much of the first and none of the second.

When Yezad’s sentimental boss, who loved Bombay, is murdered, his widow takes over the business and no longer wants to employ Yezad. Old Nariman arrives at the point of his silent autobiography where his lover and his wife fell off a roof and were killed. Coomy, briefly like Laertes, is destroyed by her own treachery. At one extraordinary moment Yezad, fresh from another disaster, takes it on himself to cut the dying old man’s nails and shave him; formerly he would have absolutely nothing to do with the care of the old man. It is like a conversion.

The management of the story, the pressures of the city, of illness and bad luck on these decent people, is admirable. Mistry describes what is pitiable without too much display of pity, and that prevents him or his reader from seeing the Parsi households as versions of pastoral. Family Matters may be thought to lack the power and scope of his second novel, A Fine Balance, a really tremendous book, which charts the downfall of two jobbing tailors, but has panoramic scope and variety. Mistry is extremely good at the politics of the family, but does not neglect national issues – the death of Shastri, the dynastic pretensions of Mrs Gandhi, who makes a personal appearance, and her playboy son; the harshness of the refugee tax imposed to finance the reception of millions of refugees from Bangladesh. Corruption, brutality, selfishness are in the atmosphere, and invade quiet homes.

This sounds unduly dark, and it must be time to recall that Mistry is a comic writer – it shows in all that characterisation, in the carefully idiomatic dialogue. He can be extravagantly funny, recounting a fabliau in which a sexual athlete exhausts all the women in a brothel, which has to be closed while they convalesce. One of the virtues of this kind of novel is that the author can get so much into it without it lapsing into the condition of the loose and baggy monster.

Henry James, commenting on Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns, allowed that the author had put down ‘in dense unconfused array, every fact required, every fact in any way invocable, to make the life of the Five Towns press upon us’; but that, he argues, is not enough, for soon we are saying: ‘Yes, yes, but is this all? These are the circumstances of interest . . . but where is the interest itself, where and what is its centre?’ A devout Jamesian might say the same of Mistry’s novels.

The criticism would be unjust. They do have an interest beyond their ‘unconfused array’ of fact and character. He can write of a wall made dangerous and disgusting by men using it as a urinal, and provoking a plague of mosquitoes. The wall is cleaned up, and a pavement artist hired to paint on it the gods of all relevant religions. Since men are no longer willing to take the risk of pissing on it, this solves the problem and also advances the professional skills of the artist. A doll won in a raffle is raped by a halfwit; a quilt, long in the making, always has a piece missing. There is imagination at work here, and there is interest.

One might say that the interest begins on the first page of the first novel, when a Parsi faces East at dawn, prays to Mazda, and eventually unknots his kusti. The world of which he is momentarily the centre is full of hard facts that must be dealt with. Their combined force is stronger than the kusti and stronger than the defences of the fine unforced civility that these characters normally enjoy. The variety, virtue and humour of lives led in defiance of these facts constitute the interest itself, and to represent them so fully is, like the work of the pavement artist, a work of art.

Family Matters has an epilogue in the voice of Yezad’s younger son, Jehangir, now adolescent. He describes the worsening relations between his elder brother, Murad, and his father. He is shrewd and knowledgable and doesn’t seem to be angry because the world, including the world of his family, has become darker and more confusing. His mother asks him if he is happy, and he says he is, not firmly or enthusiastically – all things considered, that would be putting it too strongly – but saying it all the same. So he is like the book he is in, and like a great many other people, fairly happy in his way of dealing with the circumstances of unhappiness.